By examining the works and life of Sylvia Plath, Linda Wagner-Martin achieves to make the story of her growth into a consummate artist both dramatic and convincing. In her narrative of the accomplished, yet tentative American girl, Wagner-Martin brings the desire to become a writer to the center of Plath's life. By this, she humanizes Plath and brings her from the status of myth and legend to the normality of a talented woman who guides her life by her continuous attempts to achieve her literary aims.
Linda Wagner Martin's Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life (Macmillan Press, 1999; 2nd. ed. rev. and expanded, 2003) is a gem. What struck me in 1999 when it first came out was the fact that it discussed unpublished materials, be they letters, poems, prose, or other. Discouraged by the number of mediocre books I've read recently about Plath (particularly poems about Plath), I thought I'd give a critical work a read, just to reestablish a connection with good writing about Plath. A good critic can convince the reader that their approach to the subject is the right way, despite any amount of knowledge one may possess about the said subject. Wagner-Martin does this. In the Preface, she states that Plath's life was "genuinely a literary life. There was no other aim for Sylvia Plath..." It is with this in mind that Wagner-Martin writes one of the best critical books on Plath.
The themes in Plath's poetry and prose that Wagner-Martin examines include "Plath's Hospital Writing", "Plath's Poems about Women", as well as "Recalling the Bell Jar" and "Lifting the Bell Jar", amongst others. Each chapter is clearly written and easy to read, full of wonderful, original analysis and shows the constant connections and a continual narrative, in Plath's body of work. Wagner-Martin draws much of her information and analysis from her own experience in working on Plath, as well as the working papers for her 1987 biography, and includes interview transcriptions and correspondence with Plath's friends and family members. It shows the value of good archival research, looking at drafts of poems and their deleted or otherwise unused lines and unfinished ideas.
Wagner-Martin writes, "We care about Sylvia Plath because of her poems, and her progress toward her last poems is one of modern literature's most exciting narratives." A finer way to express why we read Plath and why her poetry and prose matters cannot be stated. By examing Plath's earlier writing, and considering some of the writers she was reading, Wagner-Martin's claim that "Sylvia Plath trained all her life for her art" is easily supported.
The second, revised and expanded edition, published in 2003, includes a thirteenth chapter that looks particularly at Birthday Letters. Wagner-Martin explains that the first edition was already in production when Birthday Letters was published, making it impossible to add commentary about it at that time. While given just cursory criticism and examining just a few poems, the chapter takes a little bit away from the books focus: Plath's literary life. This is unintentional, especially given Wagner-Martin's criticism of Hughes having published the collection in a fashion that she feels usurps "the authority of Plath's narrative" and "literally [takes] the words out of Plath's mouth."
Wagner-Martin closes the second edition with what I consider to be a challenge to Plath's Estate and her readers. She says that, as a major poet, Plath "deserves to be swept along in a steady stream of appreciative criticism, scholarly accuracy and newly loyal readers." I couldn't agree more. Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life is a valuable contribution to Plath scholarship by an ardent scholar and admirer of the poet.